After the Fact: Good old golden school days


Spell-check, that computer generated censor of words it doesn’t recognize, consistently tells me that “serendipitously” is NOT a word. It’s a perfectly good word, as a matter of fact, referring to fun things that happen unexpectedly. As you get older, more and more things occur serendipitously, like having your first cup of coffee as the sun rises over the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Several years ago, I tutored a young man in a couple of subjects that I really had no business tutoring. We’ll discuss that in a while. This kid was no slouch. When his English teacher assigned a term paper, he got right to it. By the time he needed help, he’d done all of the research, had an outline and the “bare bones” of the paper. He probably would not have used “serendipitously” in a sentence, but he’d obviously heard the word somewhere, at some time, and had a general notion of what it meant. “It’s kind of like “déjà vu” except it means really happy,” he explained as we talked our way through writing the paper. It took a few stabs, but I finally hit on what he wanted. And away we did go. Until his teacher returned the paper with a big, red “F” on the front page. 

He was crushed! I was perplexed. His mother was furious, and wasted no time hot-footing it to the school. “It’s obvious he did NOT write this paper,” was the teacher’s explanation for the “F.” “Look at this word!” She pointed to (you guessed it?) “serendipitously.” And mom asked if she’d even asked if he understood what he’d written. “Well, no.” So mom went home, came back with the young writer in doubt, and insisted they meet in the principal’s office. The result was a grade change. A significant grade change. His comment to me later was, “So, Miz (as in Ms.), do you think she just didn’t understand that word?” Serendipitously speaking, she probably did not.

Tutoring is not for the timid. Sometimes, the kid you’re tutoring turns out to be a lot smarter about some things than you think they are. And you think you did a lot of “homework” when you were in school? The younger they are, the more likely it is that they’ll have you snowed into doing the work for them. Patience, my great-granddaughter, is the object of my attention right now because, for one reason or another, she was “passed” to the next grade without knowing even the fundamentals of math. If the problem appears on paper, it’s a complete mystery for her. You cannot “take” 9 apples “away from” 7 apples. And she counts on her fingers. That was a NO-NO when I was in elementary school. When do we get to calculus?

So far, Patience has not had to do a science fair project, which is (you guessed it?) serendipitous. For someone who came from a town where science was ALL, I’m woefully ignorant of some things. I hated cutting up dead frogs. I created a minor explosion in chemistry class. We had to consult with the high school science teacher when my grandson was in third grade and wanted to display his rock collection for his fair project. Most of Zander’s rocks were “leverites.” When you find one, just “leave ‘er right there because it’s nothing special.” The next year, fourth graders participated in the “Invention Convention.” Zan’s contribution was “the Zand-aid,” a foot-long band aid he’d made to cover a scratch down his thigh made when he rode his bicycle down a very steep hill and didn’t stop when he hit the bushes that bordered the bottom of the park.

Science fair has not been an event of great success in our family. Much conversation, a whole lot of after-the-fact laughing, but not too many blue ribbons. The stand-out exception was my nephew Michael’s research into whether brook trout were attracted to classical or rock music. The display and research won first place and would have gone on to state competition if it hadn’t been withdrawn by his mother. Michael’s contribution was the art work, lettering and imagination behind all of the statistics.

We were a great disappointment, I think, to my dad but a chemical engineer isn’t much help as an advisor when other kids are entering a Van de Graaff generator in the high school science fair. That’s something else my Spell-check doesn’t recognize.  Serendipitously, I know how to spell it anyway.

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